A man who has taught so much to so many
Story by: Ann Whitcher
Retiring after 46 years of teaching, Charles H.V. (“Vince”) Ebert can ook back at a truly epic UB career. Five university presidents have presided while he vigorously explored the physical world both inside and outside the classroom. Ebert’s own estimate is that 30,000 UB students have heard him lecture on all things geographic, from acid rain and Love Canal to world conflicts and asteroids.
Ebert joined the UB faculty in 1954 and became the founding chair of the department of geography following the 1962 merger with SUNY. While serving as dean of undergraduate education from 1970 to 1977, he continued to teach full time. He published numerous articles on soil problems, land development and environmental hazards. Teaching has always been his top priority, and in 1989, he was named a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, in addition to having previously received five awards for the quality of his teaching.
Ebert’s official retirement this past June is only a technical one; he continues to teach several courses during each fall semester. “I do it voluntarily because I enjoy it so much,” says Ebert, 76. “I’ll be off in the spring semester and the summer writing, doing research and trying to slow down a little bit, but it’s very hard for me.” Ebert plans to continue this pattern, at least through the 2002–03 academic year.
When the peripatetic professor does take time off, it means activities like climbing Sicily’s Mt. Etna, which he did last May, or researching a major article correlating the Biblical story of the parting of the Red Sea to natural events in the ancient world, perhaps the gigantic seismic sea waves that flooded the Nile delta more than 3,000 years ago. Over his long career, Ebert has done field work in Russia, China, Taiwan, Central and South America, and Iceland. He also participated in archaeological excavations in Israel, and was the first UB faculty member to take part in an exchange program with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.
Born in Hamburg, Germany, to American parents, Ebert spent most of his youth in Switzerland. His father, an export manager for a New York firm, would invite his young son on trips abroad as a reward for good schoolwork. Ebert was considering a career as a globe-trotting journalist and photographer when World War II, “a major break” in his life, intervened. He served four years in the U.S. Army before pursuing his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Augmenting his academic background are impressive language skills: He speaks French, Russian and Spanish, in addition to German.
Ebert’s first students during the post-war period were decidedly practical in their approach to coursework. “My students in those years still reflected the presence of veterans of World War II,” he says. “The typical students of the mid-1950s were fairly serious and career-oriented, with many of them taking advantage of the GI Bill. They were quite disciplined, fitting in to the traditional framework of most American universities of the time.”
In later years, Ebert’s students were shaped—often dramatically so—by major social upheavals, in particular, the Vietnam War. “It is important to stress that a great number of faculty were also very strongly affected by the happenings in Vietnam,” Ebert recalls. “There was a greater degree of solidarity between faculty and students in those years. Unfortunately, many student activist groups—though well-intentioned—were taken over by outside forces that had very little to do with the university. The net result was that both faculty and students began to polarize, causing stress, misunderstandings, strikes and many personal incidents.”
Today’s students, Ebert says, “are much more introverted, much more
concerned with their own lives, including social diversions. And the
solidarity between faculty and students that strongly evolved in the
late 1960s and early 1970s has eroded. Today, when I’m teaching, I
sometimes miss that level of student response, even when at times
it involved annoying activities.” He uses a geographic metaphor to
express the relative student apathy of 2001: “It is like a pool of
oil; you throw a brick into it and it makes a dull sound, but no waves.”
During the “tear gas” period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when students were anything but apathetic, Ebert gained respect from many on campus for his honesty and willingness to listen to student concerns, while adhering to his own firmly held beliefs and convictions. “When I was offered the position of acting dean for undergraduate education in 1970, I was fully aware that the university was still in upheaval and suffered from the effects of those restless years filled with protests. My main concern was not to restore the status quo, but to bring some order back into our academic life. For example, I vehemently opposed self-grading by students. My slogan at the time was ‘Innovation with Responsibility.’ In other words, I believed that students should serve on all committees, as properly elected by their student association. Then, as now, accountability must be expected from top to bottom at a university.”
Ebert relates a story from the protest era that illustrates his ability to reach students, even when their goals and philosophies might clash: “I was teaching in Diefendorf 147 with a class of about 300 students. All of a sudden, the doors were flung open and about 12 protesters marched around banging trash can lids and blowing whistles.” Ebert knew the student in charge, and calmly approached him, shook hands, and asked, “Well, what can I do for you?” He invited the student leader to take the microphone and briefly address the class on a topic of his choosing. “He stammered about the military and industrial establishment, and that we should join the strike. After about three or four minutes, he ran out of words. Then, I said to the class, ‘I want you to be very quiet and just think about what you have heard. You have several options. One is, we cut the class and you join the strike. Two, we have a discussion on the [anti-war] material just presented. Three, we continue with my lecture.’” Almost all those assembled, including the impromptu guest speaker, voted to have Ebert continue. “It was a tense situation that was resolved,” says Ebert, “because I allowed students to make their statement.
“I think the secret of good teaching is to be human, so that the students see in you a human being of interest to them.”
Once, while teaching a section of his long-running and popular undergraduate course on “Disasters” (subject also of a fourth edition of his textbook issued in August 2000 under the new title, Disasters: An Analysis of Natural and Human-Induced Hazards), Ebert spoke of the impact of war—its inherent destructive power, and how monstrous actions are often viewed one-sidedly. “I talked about the firestorm in Hamburg, Germany, on July 27, 1943, in which more than 50,000 people were killed in a few hours. Then I stopped for a few minutes, and said, ‘Let’s look at the other side of the coin—the Bataan Death March of April 1942 when the Japanese killed thousands of American and Filipino prisoners of war. Or look at the Holocaust and [think about] what the Nazis did.’”
At this point, Ebert recalls, he was overcome with emotion and had to halt the lecture before 400 students in Knox Hall. “All of a sudden, several students came up and hugged me. It was an incredible experience, and it had nothing to do with the rewards of teaching, it had to do with sharing human emotions.”
As Ebert faces the eventuality of complete retirement from the faculty, he shares that emotion, too: “Having developed strong roots and a deep love for this university, I feel that all faculty must be deeply involved with the university far beyond their expected classroom and research activities to make sure that this great institution will prevail. My retirement is filling me with pride that I was able to serve for such a long period, but this pride is equally matched by the awareness that the moment of leaving for good is slowly approaching. However, the memories of many students who became dear to me—and who are now successful alumni around the world—more than compensates for that feeling of loss.”